Northern Ireland

The Ulster Hall celebrates its 150th birthday

Lemmy Motorhead Ulster Hall 1980
Image caption Lemmy from Motorhead rocking The Ulster Hall, 1980

The Ulster Hall is 150 years old this year.

Funded by linen merchants, the Grand Dame opened in 1862 before being bought by Belfast City Council in 1902.

The motivation behind building the venue was simple - to create a bigger venue to allow lower ticket prices and give greater access to events for the people of Belfast.

"It was mostly built with linen money, but their ethos from the beginning was not to provide music for upper-class people but to pull the ticket prices down," said Ulster Hall heritage officer Jan Carson.

Even now when you first enter the building, heritage plaques hang at the main entrance. A nod to the building's rich musical history.

Ruby Murray - a Belfast girl, born in 1935 dominated the UK charts in the 1950s. She made her name at the Ulster Hall.

Rory Gallagher - a star who lit up Belfast at the darkest of times during the troubles is remembered in the same way.

Music is a huge part of the building's history, but it is not the whole story.

Ms Carson gives guided tours of the building and acts as an in-house historian. She is proud to be associated with the famous venue.

"It's a really special building to be part of. I think it's such a multi-purpose building. If you look back over the history of it there's been massive sporting occasions, credible music concerts and political events. It's so integral to the history of Northern Ireland," she said.

In January 1867 the words of Charles Dickens were read to grateful audiences, as a reporter from the News Letter wrote at the time:

"From what we heard, we regretted that we did not hear more.

"The charm of the entertainment was in the living presence of the creator of so many 'nimble, fiery and delectable shapes'."

The same venue full of men and women hanging on to every word of Dickens' readings in 1867 was packed full of boxing fans screaming Barry McGuigan onto victory as he lifted a European boxing title in 1983.

Versatility

It is this versatility that Jan thinks is the reason why the Ulster Hall has been a success for so long.

Image caption How the venue would have looked in earlier days

"I do tours of the building all the time and everybody seems to have an Ulster Hall story. It's really intertwined in people's personal history," she said.

She recalls some of her favourite stories of the Ulster Hall.

"Dexy's Midnight Runners played here in the 80s and people pogoed so hard during Come on Eileen that the floor caved in," she said.

"We had The Smiths here a couple of times too and someone turned up with a pound of pork sausages and threw them at Morrissey because he was such a well-known vegetarian."

The birth of rock 'n' roll combined with the stationing of American troops in Northern Ireland during World War II marked a change for the Ulster Hall.

The Rolling Stones came to town in 1964 before Led Zeppelin unleashed Stairway to Heaven on the world for the first time while performing there in March 1971.

The Belfast crowd were apparently a tough audience to please: "Apparently Stairway to Heaven didn't go down very well on the night because it was such a breakaway from what they usually play," said Ms Carson.

There is no doubt that the Ulster Hall as a music venue helped put Belfast firmly on the map. AC/DC, The Who, U2 and a whole host of other bands who need no introduction have graced the stage at the Bedford Street venue.

The building closed its doors for two years in 2007 before opening them again two years later following £8.5m worth of tender loving care.

And if last year was anything to go by, the Grand Dame is in rude health.

November 2011 saw the MTV European Music Awards roll into town. The Odyssey Arena hosted the main event, but the Ulster Hall was part of the celebrations too.

The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Kasabian treated crowds, joining the long list of rock royalty to have performed there.

Here's to the next 150 years!